'Best Friend' nimbly shares laughs and lessons
Patrice Leconte's simplicity can be exasperating. The director has approached complex subjects -- capital punishment ("The Widow of St. Pierre"), knife-throwing ("The Girl on the Bridge"), voyeurism ("Monsieur Hire") -- and smoothed away the edges until what remained was a hollow, well-polished object. His preference for gorgeousness means all his movies are easy to watch. But while they look pretty, they don't always run deep. Recently he's been concentrating on the bloom of human connection from shallow emotional pools.
"My Best Friend" is Leconte's spriest, least frustrating movie in years. He casts Daniel Auteuil as Francois, an antiques dealer who learns at one of those alluring Parisian dinner parties that the people at the table don't consider him a friend -- a colleague perhaps, an acquaintance sure, even an occasional lover, but certainly not a friend. This is funny since Auteuil has played characters far more loathsome and undeserving of friendship than Francois. But Leconte isn't forcing the issue. We're told Francois is self-centered and treats people as things, and because it appears to be an occupational trait, we believe it.
Francois, on the other hand, is appalled. He turns petulant and defensive; he does too have a best friend, he insists. When his dinner mates want to know who, and why they've never met him before, he has no response. So his business partner, Catherine (Julie Gayet), gives him 10 days to produce the friend or she'll help herself to the ancient Greek vase he just bought for a quarter of a million dollars.
The truth, of course, is they're right, and the movie follows as Francois goes to shameless lengths to acquire the one thing he has yet to collect: a person. He tries buying a self-help book. He harasses two gentlemen to find out how they befriended each other. Once, he calls up Dial-A-Friend. Later, he calls upon an old peer and crassly tells him what he's up to.
But it's a lonely cab driver named Bruno (Dany Boon) who shows Francois what he needs to know -- you can't buy people -- and how to be "sympathique." He's attuned to the needs of Francois's adult daughter (Julie Durand), and he demonstrates how to let loose at a soccer match.
Bruno is one of Leconte's finest inventions, and Boon is wonderful in the part. He's a neurotic working stiff with stores of unused platonic affection. His habit for spewing facts (do you know why we call it mayonnaise?) annoys everyone but his parents, exuberantly played by Marie Pillet and Jacques Mathou. They've been encouraging him to apply his knowledge to one of those TV quiz shows.
The two men enter each other's lives serendipitously and gradually something resembling friendship takes hold. Then Francois applies pressure and asks his new pal to prove his devotion, which leads to what can only be described as Bruno's unveiling. It's a surprising scene that's comical and kind of sad.
Leconte's writing is tight and nimble, and while the tests of the duo's friendship are facile, under the circumstances, they make sense. The bond between Francois and Bruno approximates the real thing; Leconte seems to be arguing that you can grow a flower from fake soil.
"My Best Friend" continues the director's heartening consideration of male vulnerability that began in earnest with his "Monsieur Hire" in 1991 and got more shamelessly sentimental with "Man on a Train" in 2002. The characters in his new movie offer some profound advice to Francois about the meaning of friendship. He doesn't heed it all. But for once with Leconte I took it seriously: It sounds wise.